I’ve wondered for a long time what drives the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of the Republican party members and their allies within conservative (especially fundamentalist, evangelical and charismatic) Christianity. After reading about the history and evolution of the beliefs of both groups, some parallel patterns begin to emerge.
For Republicans, their current platform highlights an agenda that appeals to needs for safety, security, law and order, along with bigotry, racism and paranoia. These positions aim squarely at the demographic that would be considered right-wing authoritarians (RWA’s). (See list of related blog articles below that explain RWA traits.)
Philosophically, some aspects of the Republican platform were derived from the Puritan and Reformed doctrines of the early New England settlers that rely heavily on Calvinist beliefs. Several decades ago, the Republican party courted southern Democrat voters (who adhered to adaptations of Calvinist-derived doctrines) with a message of patriotism, moralism, racism and classicism. Among southerns in particular, and working classes everywhere, they played off of the cultural paranoia about other groups (such as liberal elites and mainstream media) encouraged by conspiracy theories. (Although, ironically, the Republican party was actively doing most of the dastardly things these groups feared from the hidden hand of the elusive elites.) More recently Republican have openly embraced the libertarian ideals derived from Objectivism as promoted in the novels of Ayn Rand, which reinforces the notion of moral elitism based on financial success. Combined, these influences justify the oppression of underclasses by the elites who use legal and illegal force to reinforce their privileged status. They manipulate lower classes to stay “in their proper place” by intentionally limiting access to power and wealth while holding out the false promise that “anyone can succeed in America.” This strategy keeps the working class working endlessly trying to obtain the elusive American dream that only a small handful will experience (often due to advantages gained at birth.
For Evangelical Conservative Christians, especially those with Calvinist leanings, similar views are aligned with their theological and doctrinal heritage. Many believe that material prosperity is the result of godly living (alone) and that poverty is a curse as the result of immorality and ungodliness. Reviewing the life of John Calvin and the movement his writings spawned, it seems understandable how these ideas came into prominence in modern Christian churches. Also, the targeted appeal by Conservative political groups, especially Republicans, to this religious audience begins to explain how their typical political leanings have become so prevalent as to become nearly as important as their religious doctrines. (For those unfamiliar with John Calvin, he encouraged the Old Testament laws as the basis for a just and righteous system of civil law. With little encouragement, his followers extended this idea to oppressive control over behaviors and even thoughts of anyone who opposed their views of secular government, religious beliefs, civil liberties and basic human rights. Opponents were harassed, banished, ostracized, and even executed.)
To review what RWA looks like, the definition from Wikipedia gives a summary.
- Authoritarian submission — a high degree of submissiveness to the authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate in the society in which one lives.
- Authoritarian aggression — a general aggressiveness directed against deviants, outgroups, and other people that are perceived to be targets according to established authorities.
- Conventionalism — a high degree of adherence to the traditions and social norms that are perceived to be endorsed by society and its established authorities, and a belief that others in one’s society should also be required to adhere to these norms.
Examining the beliefs of those affiliated with the Republican party and the demographic profile of those who typically vote Republican, these RWA traits apply.
The 2016 election cycle confirms this observation. Specifically, the election of Donald Trump as President is a classic example of the expression of RWA tendencies to seek “strong leadership” by someone with high Social Dominance Orientation, or SDO traits. (See Related Blog Article #3.) One of the most troubling aspects of Trump’s election campaign was the degree to which his message was driven in near-real-time by responses to social media exchanges and discussion groups that operate in the dark web (sites not found by most search engines). Using sophisticated to collect and analyze these memes, a tailored message was crafted by a political strategy firm. These messages amplified and responded to prevailing themes and emotional responses among the general public, but especially within targeted demographic groups. In the case of the recent US election, targeted groups were those most likely to respond with emotions of anger that might be expressed as social outrage and even violence. Examples include racist whites, financially disadvantaged working classes, religious fundamentalists and conservative elitists.
Equally disturbing is watching the same memes used to target extremists in a selected political demographic being pushed into mainstream conservative Christian groups by supposedly credible Christian leaders and media. There are several major publications that cater to subgroups of Christian believers that clearly have a political agenda disguised as a godly or Biblical worldview. Typically these messages use direct emotional appeals to the RWA instincts that prevail in conservative religious groups. By the way, similar messages are also targeted toward conservatives in other belief systems, including Jews and Muslims. Reading articles from the conservative Jewish press , the underlying worldview assumptions are almost entirely consistent with articles from the conservative Christian publications. This indicates that similar messages are transmitted to RWA factions in all religious as well as political groups. The popular responses to these articles confirms that the messages are being received and responded to exactly as intended.
The evidence is substantial, so the conclusion seems clear: both political and religious conservatives respond similarly to the messages directed toward those with right wing authoritarian tendencies. Both support oppressive leaders who impose their hostile worldview onto others by force and have little empathy for those harmed by their beliefs and actions. Both limit the information sources they seek out, only accepting the ones that agree with their viewpoints and biases while discounting or discrediting any source (no matter how objectively credible) that does not support their beliefs. Both violently attack verbally, and sometimes physically, anyone who disagrees with them. Both demand conformity to commonly accepted ideas and values from those within their group and label dissenters as traitors or heretics. Both typically support their leaders faithfully, regardless of obvious personality defects, blatant duplicity and moral failings of these “leaders”. Both are driven by some fear of the world outside their affinity groups. Both are oblivious to the logical errors and moral contradictions in arguments used to support their positions and react with strong emotions when these are challenged.
Can anyone consciously change these instinctive responses to RWA messages? Considering the emerging evidence that predicts a neurological basis for conservative versus liberal biases in thinking and belief, change might be difficult for individuals who remain within a familiar cultural bubble. But then again, anything is possible!
(See Related Blog Article #4 for references to a sample of research into genetic factors in belief choices.)
- http://www.dailykos.com/story/2006/02/22/189228/ -Conservatism-As-Identity-Politics-Intro
- http://www.dailykos.com/story/2006/02/25/189848/ -Conservatism-As-Identity-Politics-Pt2-Hard-Core-Data
- http://www.dailykos.com/story/2006/03/01/190887/ -Rightwing-Authoritarianism-and-Conservative-Identity
Related Blog Articles in this series:
- What is Right-wing Authoritarianism?
- How to Recognize Right-wing Authoritarians
- Right-wing Authoritarian vs. Social Dominance Orientation
- Is the Right-wing/Left-wing Split Determined by Genes?